Most people would agree that sunshine laws are important to democracy. These laws make government decisions more transparent to average citizens. They include requirements that citizens get access to public documents, have access to public meetings, and have information about the individuals and organizations lobbying to shape public policy.
In Minnesota, these laws are imperfect, as shown in the difficulty in finding information about who is behind Minnesotans for Line 3. The organization claims large grassroots support, but Enbridge appears to be its sugar daddy.
Enbridge Line 3 is a proposed tar sands crude oil pipeline that would trench 355 miles through northern Minnesota, crossing more than 200 waterbodies and 78 miles of wetlands.
Minnesotans for Line 3 has had a substantial presence pushing for its approval. During Line 3 public hearings, busloads of people would arrive wearing “Minnesotans for Line 3” t-shirts and be a visible presence at the meetings. The organization bought ads on Fox TV, KARE-11 and in the Star Tribune. It has run a sophisticated social media campaign and done phone banks. It paid for lawn signs sprinkled across northern Minnesota. It submitted pro-Line 3 Op-Ed pieces to state publications. It delivered a petition to state decision makers. Its website currently asks people to call the Governor and express their support for Line 3.
The public deserved to know Enbridge’s role in backing Minnesotans for Line 3’s, yet finding information has been a challenge.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
Minnesotans for Line 3 doesn’t appear as a business or nonprofit filed with the Minnesota Secretary of States’ office. It doesn’t appear in a search on the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, whose work includes “lobbyist registration and disclosure.”
Minnesotans for Line 3’s website currently lists four people on its advisory committee: Mel Olson and Abby Loucks of United Piping, an Enbridge contractor; Todd Rothe of JR Jensen Construction, another Enbridge contractor, and Matt Gordon of Gordon Construction, an American Indian-owned company that would work on Line 3.
Minnesotans for Line 3 spent $245,000 on Facebook advertising between November 11, 2018 and April 20, 2019, making it the tenth largest digital ad purchaser among interest groups during that time, the Duluth News Tribune reported last year.
It was Minnesotans for Line 3’s TV ad buys that disclosed Enbridge’s key role in the organization. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires parties placing political issue ads on TV to list their officers. The DeSmog Blog did some digging and found the FCC filing for a Minnesotans for Line 3 listed four names as the organization’s leaders Three of those listed were Al Monaco, Cynthia Hansen, and John Whelen. Though their titles are not listed on the form, they appear to be top Enbridge brass. There is an Al Monaco who is Enbridge’s president and CEO, a John Whelen who is its executive vice president and chief financial officer, and a Cynthia Hansen who is its executive vice president and president, gas distribution & storage.
The DeSmog blog uncovered other important connections. Another FCC filing it found shows that Velocity Public Affairs, a Saint Paul-based public relations firm, placed a $12,600 ad buy on KARE-11 for Minnesotans for Line 3. Ten ads ran in late June, 2018, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was voting on key Line 3 permits.
Mike Zipko, one of the Velocitys principals, had previously done public relations work for Enbridge. He also has appeared as a Minnesotans for Line 3 spokesman, the blog said.
In a now deleted page from Velocity’s website, it details the “invaluable” grassroots work it provided to Enbridge Line 3. It touted its Line 3 strategy, including “a phone program, a direct-mail program, a digital and content engagement program and a canvassing program …” (DeSmog discovered this in a cached webpage, archived here.)
As a practical matter, a company the size of Enbridge has little if any incentive to follow the public disclosure laws. Penalties are minimal.
If a lobbyist fails to register on time, the law says “the board may impose a late filing fee of $25 per day, not to exceed $1,000.” A similar penalty applies for lobbyists who fail to file reports on time. While Enbridge might take a small PR hit for a violation, the potential of a $1,000 fine is a tiny cost for pushing through a multi-billion-dollar project.
Healing Minnesota Stories emailed Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, sketching out the background on Minnesotans for Line 3 and asking if Enbridge had skirted any lobbying laws.
Sigurdson replied that staff members can’t answer that question, only the Board determines if a violation occurred. Getting the issue before the Board requires lodging an official complaint. The Board Chair then decides whether to accept the complaint, depending on the supporting evidence provided. (The members of the six-member board are appointed by the Governor.)
Sigurdons’s email provided additional background on the nuances of Minnesota’s lobbying disclosure laws. An association, such as Minnesotans for Line 3, usually becomes an official “lobbyist principal” when it hires a lobbyist to influence political decisions. Minnesotans for Line 3 doesn’t have a registered lobbyist.
An association with no lobbyist can still become a “lobbyist principal” “if it spends $50,000 or more a year on so called grassroots lobbying,” Sigurdson wrote. “Grassroots lobbying occurs when the association does not communicate directly with the public official, but instead communicates (advertisements, website, etc.) with the public on an issue and asks the public to contact their legislator (or other public official) to ask the public official take an official action.”
“So, hypothetically, an advertisement that states that Line 3 will generate jobs and is good for the state, does not meet the definition of lobbying, and will not count towards the $50,000 threshold. Conversely, an advertisement that states that Line 3 will generate jobs and is good for the state so contact your legislator and demand action, is grassroots lobbying and will count towards the $50,000 threshold.”
Minnesotans for Line 3 has certainly spent more than $50,000 in a given year, for instance it’s $245,000 Facebook ad purchase over two calendar years. In the eyes of the state, that’s not “lobbying” unless the ads asks people to contact their elected officials.
In the eyes of the public who have worked to stop Line, there is no doubt Minnesotans for Line 3 was a strong lobbying presence; Enbridge should have been required to disclose its role and financing.
Enbridge has disclosed significant Line 3 lobbying costs. As MPR reported, Enbridge was the state’s top lobbying spender for two years running. In 2018, it spent $11 million.
Yet Enbridge apparently didn’t want the public to know it was bankrolling the “grassroots” effort.
The DeSmog Blog notes that Minnesotans For Line 3 isn’t the first pro-pipeline front group. “In 2017, the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), an Enbridge-funded arm of the lobbying firm HBW Resources, created a campaign titled ‘Modernizing America.’ CEA ran two TV ads in Minnesota in support of the pipeline.”